Reformist Political Action as a Diversion, Part Two

In my previous commentary in this series, I suggested that the state, by its very nature, was amenable to control primarily by groups of insiders.

This is due, in part, to the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” stated early in the 20th century by Robert Michels, in Political Parties:  the tendency, regardless of the pattern of formal democracy by which bodies are elected, for delegates to accumulate power at the expense of their principals, for higher bodies to concentrate power despite their theoretical responsibility to lower bodies, and for permanent staffs to accumulate power at the expense of elected officials.

This is inevitable, for one thing, because we are primates genetically wired for participation in hunter-gatherer groups of a few dozen people.  Most people, after devoting their primary attention to family, work, friends and neighborhood, have little energy left over for monitoring political events.  For those on the inside, running the machinery of government, on the other hand, the policy arena IS their work and a major part of their  primary social circle.   So the people running the machinery on a day-to-day basis will always have an advantage in energy, attention, information, and agenda control over those on the outside to whom they are nominally responsible.

And as a matter of simple interpersonal geometry, it’s almost impossible for a large body of people to exercise authority collectively over a small policy-making body.  That’s something that can only be done by individuals and small groups, coming into direct personal contact with the policymakers on a regular basis.   So the system is predisposed to evolve into an interlocking set of small elites.

This would be true even if you took the money out of politics.

There’s a school called “Structuralist Marxism” which argues that, even when the government is avowedly leftist or “progressive” and intends to govern the economy in the interests of working people and consumers and at the expense of large corporations, that government will still be compelled for structural reasons to serve primarily the interests of big business.   Given the structure of the economy, the higher policy-making circles of the state will be heavily influenced by metrics like GDP  growth, employment levels, investment levels, and so forth.  They will gravitate almost automatically toward policies that promote the profitability and stability of the corporate economy, as a proxy for promoting full employment and prosperity.  These incentives will be reinforced, even when a consciously leftist government resents the necessity, by such things as the threat of international capital flight.  Hence people like Lula da Silva in Brazil, who have gravitated toward the center-left and been integrated for the  most part into a global neoliberal framework.  Immanuel Wallerstein has argued, on that basis, that even state socialist regimes like the USSR were functionally integrated into the larger capitalist world-system.

Information dynamics also come into play.  Even if “progressive”  politicians don’t depend on big business for their campaign finance, the economic planners and regulators will still depend on the regulated industries as their primary source of data.  Unless the state administration creates a managerial framework directly parallel to the corporate economy, and sends all  its own people to get MBAs in preparation for serving as “political officers” monitoring coporate hierarchies from the inside, the information the state relies on for drafting economic policy will mainly be internally generated by large corporations.  And even the most “progressive” regulatory apparatus will tend to be coopted into a regulator-regulated complex dominated by “opposing” parties who  share the same organizational culture of white men in suits, and share the same implicit assumptions (what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism”) about what’s realistically possible.  Just about anything favored by the decentralist, libertarian left will be off the table from the outset, excluded by the unconscious operating assumptions of both reglators and regulated.

And all of this ignores the fact that the “progressives” who control the White House and Congress really aren’t very left-wing or anti-corporate at all.  Far from representing a countervailing power to big business, as I argued in the previous installment, they really just represent the more “progressive” faction of big business itself, willing to treat its workers more humanely in return for guaranteed profits from the state.

So changing the fundamental structure of our system, as an alliance between the centralized state and the giant corporation, will be extremely difficult (if not impossible) through the political process.  Having elected the most “progressive” President and Congress realistically possible, the American people still see economic policy being made by the usual suspects from Goldman Sachs and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, digital copyright policy written by the RIAA and MPAA, etc.  Even if tens of millions of people were willing to swim against the current and make a full-time career out of activism, the minute their attention wandered or their energy wavered the usual suspects would be waiting at the table to resume control of things.

So if  politics and reform are the only game in town, we’re screwed.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory